Government DNA databases

The NY Times has an article today on New York state’s efforts to create a genetic database covering all individuals convicted of a crime, felony or misdemeanor, within the state. This is a growing trend nationally and internationally, but New York seems to occupy a position on the leading edge of this curve, going back to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to get the DNA of all criminal suspects, not just those convicted of a crime, in a central clearinghouse. The logic is that be expanding the searchable database, law enforcement agencies will be able to better identify guilty individuals and be less prone to wrongfully targeting innocent individuals.

Criticisms of such efforts focus on issues of cost, efficacy and privacy. The price of all things genetic is going down, but costs have not gone down to the point where there is necessarily an obvious increase in law enforcement efficiency at targeting and convicting guilty subjects. Genetic processing takes time, requires lab facilities, and needs dedicated database management and storage.

The more complicated issue is privacy. DNA gets used in investigations in much the same way a fingerprint might be used as a tool for identification. DNA evidence, however, owing to the technology associated with it, is privileged in its interpretation by the public and by juries. More importantly, unlike a fingerprint, DNA contains information about far more than simply who you are. DNA is increasingly informative about issues related to health, ancestry and the likelihood of future events in one’s life. Creating a government database strictly for identification purposes requires some assurance about how the other information contained within our DNA is stripped out of or shielded from such systems.

About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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